The Pentagon has quietly removed a massive collection of Afghanistan War footage totaling more than 120,000 photos and 17,000 videos from its official visual record.
The images and videos, which date back more than a decade, were previously published to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, or DVIDS, a vast repository of public domain material that’s available for use by the public and the press.
The Defense Department began archiving the imagery in August and September as it was working to get Afghans out of the country, said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, who noted that the U.S. government continues to try to help Afghans who need to leave.
Kirby said on Monday that he made the decision to temporarily archive any images and videos that could put Afghans in danger.
“My guidance was: I want any imagery that could be used to identify individuals and/or family members over the last 20 years of war; I wanted it to be unpublished for a temporary period of time, and it is temporary,” Kirby told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing. “It was done out of an abundance of caution.”
All told, roughly 120,000 photographs and about 17,000 videos have been unpublished, said Kirby, who did not specify exactly when the imagery would be reposted. None of those images or videos are classified, he said.
“We did not delete, but we took off publicly accessible platforms and archived for future republication at a later date,” Kirby said. “We removed thousands of still imagery and videos that would show the faces or any other identifiable information about many of the Afghans that we have worked for and we have supported and who have supported us over the last 20 years.”
As of Monday, there were approximately 86,000 images and 46,000 videos from Afghanistan remaining on DVIDS.
“This was an abundance of caution that we felt was necessary in keeping with our obligation to protect the identities of our Afghan allies and partners,” Kirby said. “When we don’t feel that that need is there, then we will absolutely republish them.”
Kirby also said his decision was not prompted by a specific security threat, but the U.S. government had reason enough to believe that the Taliban would hunt down Afghans who have worked with the American government or their families.
“I think those concerns were valid and we make no apology whatsoever for making this decision,” Kirby said. “I still believe it was the right thing to do. And at the right time, we’ll absolutely republish them. Nothing has been deleted from the record. It is simply being archived until we believe it’s the appropriate time to put them back up.”
Since the Taliban’s victory in August, militants have targeted countless Afghans who were part of the former government, including intelligence officers and special operations forces, female judges, and the families of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government.
While the Defense Department has long withheld most information about Afghanistan, the military’s concern for the security of Afghans who have worked with U.S. troops is legitimate. In late September, Task & Purpose was provided with several pictures and videos that appeared to show the Taliban carrying out gruesome reprisals against Afghans.
It is also true that the Afghans who are shown in the pictures that were taken down were at risk before the fall of Kabul, said retired Marine Col. David Lapan, a former Pentagon spokesman.
If the Defense Department felt it was necessary to remove pictures of Afghans in order to protect them from retaliation, then the Pentagon should have publicly explained why they were taking this step and how they decided which images needed to be taken down, Lapan said.
“Because the past several years have seen damage to the credibility – not just of DoD, but across the government – then it’s incumbent upon the department to explain this in a way that, again, doesn’t cause people to question the motives behind it,” Lapan said.
But Kirby described the effort to remove so many pictures and videos as a “mammoth undertaking” that took nearly two months; and he added: “The reason why I didn’t announce it was because we were in the middle of it and it wouldn’t make much sense to tell the world that we were archiving these images before we were done archiving them.”
Kirby also said that he didn’t want to have to discuss this issue because the U.S. government is still trying to get many Afghans at risk safely out of the country.
The Defense Department coordinated with the State Department and other government agencies as it unpublished the imagery, Kirby said.
On Friday, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko revealed that the State Department had requested redacting 2,400 items from SIGAR’s website.
Despite the cited reason being to prevent Afghans from being targeted by the Taliban, a wide range of photos that do not show Afghan soldiers or civilians have also gone missing. Many other photos, from portraits of U.S. service members to patrols and troops in combat, have been archived. However, a review of existing images suggests that the methodology was not uniform, or that it may have been based on what “tag” was used — a word or phrase that can be searched for.
This concern was echoed in conversations with current and former service members in the public affairs field who deployed to Afghanistan and documented military operations first-hand, and who reported seeing differing volumes of their work disappear from the database.
Yet, evidence of their removal remains, resulting in dead links, or thumbnails of the original photo appearing on Google when the image is searched for. Because the images were previously released and, like all content uploaded to DVIDS, are public domain, some of them can still be found on other websites.
For example, photos showing U.S. Army soldiers in Kandahar province by Sgt. Kimberly Hackbarth no longer appear on DVIDS as part of the Army news story they were published with in April 2013. However, those images are still online in a Los Angeles Times story, and elsewhere.
Additionally, a widely shared 2012 photo by Marine Cpl. Reece Lodder showing two Marines sleeping alongside a military working dog in Helmand province has disappeared from DVIDS, despite still being on Wikimedia Commons and the Marine Corps’ official Facebook page.
‘Now we have nothing to show for it, both physically and in memory’
The removal of this footage means that not only does the public now have a less complete visual record of the United States’ longest war, the stories those photos and videos told are also hidden from view, as are the American service members at the center of many of them.
On Jan. 18, 2010, U.S. Marines with Alpha Co., 1st Battalion 6th Marine Regiment set off on patrol from Observation Post Huskars, a remote base in Helmand province, Afghanistan. They headed south, along with a contingent of Afghan National Army soldiers in search of the Taliban. Called “shaping operations” at the time, their mission was straightforward: They were to patrol toward a nearby village until they got into contact — “contact” being military jargon for “taking fire” — and then engage the enemy.
Within a half hour they were getting shot at. As a fire-team stepped out past a break in a waist-high mudwall onto an open stretch of parched ground, the staccato clack-clack-clack of AK-47-fire rang out, followed immediately by the high-pitched zip of close-hitting rounds. For the next five hours the patrol returned fire, bounded across hundred-meter stretches from one position to the next, and cleared one compound and fired rockets at another. As night fell, the Marines found their attackers had withdrawn, and so they returned to the outpost.
A month later, that same battalion inserted into the Taliban-held city of Marjah by helicopter in the dead of night on Feb. 13. For the next 72 hours Marines battled Taliban fighters across the district, in what was then-heralded as the single largest military operation of the war since the invasion.
It was a grueling three days, and though the fighting eventually died down, it never really stopped. During that initial offensive push, American troops, alongside a freshly trained and largely inexperienced cohort of Afghan National Army soldiers, faced all manner of enemy fire: small arms, indirect fire, rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices, and ambushes. Often, Marines would be engaged by an enemy they couldn’t see, given the long flat stretches of land that dotted the agricultural region, which served as an opium hub and a source of income for the Taliban.
The terrain outside of the city center — a series of wide-open fields, buttressed by dirt berms — left the Marines in an exposed position.
Just a few hours after the burnt orange sun crept above the horizon and turned the sky purple on that first day, one Marine, Cpl. Jacob Turbett, was killed by sniper fire as he rounded the corner of a dilapidated dirt-brown compound.
The ensuing moments — Marines sprinting to cover, or diving onto the dirt, as mortarmen fired rounds at a cluster of buildings — were photographed and later shared far and wide online, in print, and appeared as brief snippets during evening broadcasts on cable news.
But if you were to search DVIDS for evidence of those engagements now, you wouldn’t be able to find much. All but one of more than a dozen photos from that January firefight seem to have been removed, and the only images of that first day with Bravo Co., 1/6, in Marjah that remain are two photos showing the medical evacuation of a fallen Marine.
The chaotic violence of those combat operations — and many others — have vanished; an apparent casualty of the decision to scrub public records clean in the name of security.
For those Afghanistan War veterans whose job it was to document combat operations downrange, the idea that the military would remove vast numbers of its photos and videos from its public-facing database seems to be at odds with the rigorous approval process that same footage had to go through before being published in the first place.
“These are prior-approved by the same people who are now taking them down,” Clay Beyersdorfer, a former Army public affairs specialist, told Task & Purpose. “It seems to be incredibly hypocritical.”
With America’s longest war now over, a visual record of that era — the sacrifices made, hardships endured, and even the mistakes — takes on a greater meaning and importance, Beyersdorfer said.
“Now we have nothing to show for it, both physically and in memory.”
‘To provide an accurate, reliable source for media organizations’
DVIDS is an online database where images, photos, interviews, videos and news stories created by military personnel and civilian government employees are uploaded and made available to the public. Part of the military’s vast public affairs apparatus, DVIDS is the means by which the individual branches, and the Pentagon at large, distribute information about what is going on in the military.
The photos run the gamut from images of unit runs, to training, to massive naval and aerial exercises, to combat operations. Additionally, all of the material therein is available for use by the public, including media, which plays an outsized role for small news organizations like local papers which don’t have embedded journalists of their own, and may not have access to wire services.
In fact, DVIDS largely exists so that news organizations can report on the military, which is underscored by the database’s mission statement: “To provide an accurate, reliable source for media organizations to access U.S. service members and commanders deployed in support of military operations worldwide.”
Even so, the version of events published to the website are often heavily filtered, and imagery in particular is subject to close scrutiny that extends beyond operational security concerns — often with an eye toward what will reflect well on the military, and whether a line in a story, or a particular photo, sends a message that’s in lock-step with the Pentagon’s.
“It is easy to get a pulse on what story the military hopes to tell by looking at what images and videos it produces,” journalist Kelsey Atherton wrote on Aug. 31 for a story that closely looked at the military’s use of DVIDS to push a version of the Afghanistan War that hasn’t always mirrored reality.
This was on display during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which time the military uploaded a trove of photos to DVIDS — many of which are, coincidentally, still online — that were in stark contrast to videos filmed by U.S. troops on the ground.
However, the quiet and almost haphazard removal of these images remains problematic, and may even be at odds with the military’s own guidelines governing the public release of information.
According to the Defense Department’s Principles of Information, “A free flow of general and military information shall be made available, without censorship or propaganda, to the men and women of the Armed Forces and their dependents.” The guidance goes on to say that “information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment.”
While the Pentagon has defended its decision to remove photos and videos from its database over security concerns for Afghans now living under Taliban rule, it’s unclear how that line of thinking would be used to justify the removal of unrelated photos from DVIDS — particularly those that show just U.S. troops engaged in combat operations; photos that have been online for years.
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